Writers have it harder than other artists. This fact was revealed to me in a brilliant anecdote a writing instructor told, comparing his work day with a sculptor's. Every day, she would chip away and her lump of marble would look more like her intended subject. Every day, he had a bunch of words that didn't look any more like a book than the day before. It was incredibly frustrating, he said, until he realized one thing.
She picked up her marble from Italy and could start work immediately.
He had to make his marble first. Only when he had enough words could he start chipping away with the editing process, giving final form to his text.
I have the marble—the ideas, words, and scenes—for my second Fangborn book. It is a rough slab with tons of potential locked up in it. Now I'm editing the book and it is a love-hate process. I love editing, at every stage, because it makes my work better. I hate editing, at every stage, because it forces me to wrestle with my own ego and be brutally honest; it demands a perspective and emotional distance that are extraordinarily difficult.
So I turned to my Fellow Femmes Fatales—among the best in the business!—to find out how they cope with editing.
Change how you read your book:
A change of persepective makes all the difference. Dean says: “My best advice is to read the book aloud to yourself. I know that when I'm reading a chapter to the critique group I hear things that I wasn't able to see before, and it's always helpful.” And Donna agrees: “Printing out my work in a different typeface from the one I normally work in helps me see it with slightly fresher eyes and find a whole new range of things to fix.” Charlaine recommends temporal distance, too: “I think any book benefits from a thorough editing, and I think the best strategy is to let the book sit for at least two weeks after you finish, so you can look at it with fresh eyes.”
Keep an “overused word” list:
We all have go-to words, and my subconscious apparently believes that if you've found a great word, use it a bunch of times on the same page. Almost every Fatale agreed on the value of keeping a “kill list." Elaine said, “Be aware of words and phrases you over-use and take them out. "Just" is one I have to hunt down and kill when I edit my work.” Others of us agreed, (over)liking “very,” “creeping dread,” and “distract.” I've discovered that I need a legal-sized pad, not a Post-It for this.
Think about how you're expressing things:
That first chunk of marble we produce is bound to be in shorthand. Once the structure and big things are in order, it's time to make the prose your own. Marcia says “Use your search/replace function to locate all instances of WAS or WERE and words ending in ING. ...[for example] He was standing in the door. Replace with He filled the doorway, like a cork in a bottle.” And Kris reminds us: “Don't forget to use all of your senses. Too often we describe everything in terms of visuals. Although visual descriptions are important, sometimes smell or touch can provide the reader with a stronger, more visceral impression of some place or person or object.” Hank says: “My advice would be… Shorter is almost always better. I mean: shorter is better. When in doubt, take it out. Or -If you're not brave – make a copy of the first way, and then try it the other way.”
Know when to stop editing:
Knowing when to stop editing is just as important; you don't want to undo all the good you've just done. Toni tells how she recognizes that moment: “I know to stop when in one pass I change "good" to "great" and then in the next pass change it back to "good." And Catriona says, “I know it's time to stop when my answer to any problem is to cut. A misplaced comma? Ach - cut the chapter. At that stage one more pass could get the book down to a haiku.”
There is a ton of great advice out there--writers, which techniques do you use to edit? Readers, what do you wish more writers would think about?